For a pacific, commercial republic protected by two giant oceans and two peaceful neighbors with small militaries, America sure has fought a lot of wars.
Michael Beschloss’s Presidents of War details eight American leaders beginning in 1807 who took us to war and just one, Jefferson, who didn’t. The text wraps up after the Vietnam War, and represents a synthesis of Beschloss’s nine books on the presidency, along with his editing and publishing of Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes—much of which deal with that catastrophic conflict in southeast Asia.
Although a liberal, Beschloss’s history provides fodder for conservatives. He details a litany of presidential power accumulation that enabled presidents to disregard congressional approval for war declarations, the last of which was passed in 1942.
Things started out well for the republic, as Jefferson cut the $5 million military budget in half upon assuming office in 1801. He cited the peace his predecessor, John Adams, had recently concluded to end the Quasi-War with France. In those days, instead of the Defense Department, the country was served by the Department of the Navy and the Department of War, which represented the Army. Jefferson feared a larger, more complex military organization might pull the country into an unwise war. “Jefferson hated war,” Beschloss writes, “which, to him,...